Modern History’s Biggest Construction Failures

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Here’s a secret about architectural disasters: well-made structures don’t simply fall apart for no reason. So whenever you hear about bridges, factories, scaffolding, oil rigs or apartment complexes listing over and collapsing into dust and rubble, assume one of two things caused the incident: natural disasters (think earthquakes or hurricanes), or human error.

More often than not, when the disaster is unexpected and localized, it’s the latter. So don’t be surprised if the inevitable reports describe design miscalculations, shoddy construction, cut corners and short cuts, and/or various other examples of laziness and incompetence. The results can be deadly. We’ve collected several examples from the last several decades (many in the last one) of such incidents. All are tragic. All were avoidable. And, not meaning to scare anybody here, but as you read these you’ll likely start asking how many other structurally unsound buildings there are out there. Maybe even some you’ve been to. Maybe one you’re in right now.

8. Willow Island Disaster (1978)

In 1978, West Virginia’s Pleasants Power Station was getting a second cooling tower, as part of a large scale expansion of the coal power plant network along the Ohio River. Research-Cottrell, a contracting company from New Jersey known for building these towers nationwide, was hired to complete the job. But instead of using the standard method of tower construction for the project (which involved placing the scaffold on the ground and simply building it up alongside the rising cooling tower), this team chose to bolt the scaffolds to the tower itself, building both as they went.

At around 10 a.m. on April 27, just as the cooling tower reached 166 feet, the crane cable lifting the day’s third concrete bucket loosened enough to pull the crane itself towards the inside of the tower, compromising the previous days’ concrete placement and causing it to give way. This triggered a chain reaction in which the concrete of the tower began to peel away, unwinding the tower and pulling the scaffold, and all 51 men working on it at the time, down into the tower. None of them survived, making it the deadliest construction disaster in American history. 

7. Deepwater Horizon (2010)

 

Most disasters on this list involve structural issues that gradually worsen and only become apparent after a general collapse. But Deepwater Horizon, the infamous semisubmersible offshore oil rig operated by British Petroleum near Louisiana, went out in more immediate and spectacular fashion. High pressure methane gas, originating from the underwater exploratory well in which Horizon was digging for oil, expanded into the marine riser and then into the drilling rig, where it ignited and blew up on April 20, 2010. The fire quickly spread and soon engulfed the entire station, killing 11 workers and severely injuring an additional 17 before sinking the platform.

Notoriously, the explosion also caused the largest accidental oil spill in history, dumping roughly five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days (62,000 barrels per day, dwarfing BP’s initial daily estimate of 1,000-5,000). By the time the spill was contained and shut off, it had covered an area roughly the size of the state of Oklahoma and had caused catastrophic damage to the surrounding environment, to US maritime commerce in the coastal region (primarily Louisiana), and to BP’s reputation.

6. Rio De Janeiro Three Building Collapse (2012)

This January 2012 disaster, involving three side by side commercial buildings, unfolded almost gradually. At 8:33 p.m., building two, which consisted of 23 stories, began listing towards building three (which had six stories) on the opposite side of R. Vieira Fazenda Street. The eastward lurch of building two pulled the slightly smaller building one (which had 22 stories), to which it was structurally attached, along with it, causing it to collapse first when its support columns snapped under the lateral pressure.

Building two’s collapse was ongoing and more gradual; it stayed structurally intact long enough to dump heavy amounts of debris onto the roof of the much smaller building three, causing its collapse, before building two finally gave in and fell apart. All in all, 17 people were killed and investigators later determined that building two, which kickstarted the disaster, had begun to fall apart due to being structurally unsound at a fundamental level. Thing is, it had no construction permits whatsoever inside, so any of the recent construction that it had endured (likely contributing to its condition) had violated local building codes. 

5. Savar Building Collapse (2013)

Roughly 3,122 workers were inside the Savar Upazilla garment factory (in Bangladesh’s Dhaka district) when it collapsed shortly after power generators were activated on the upper floor following a local power outage on April 24, 2013. Making matters worse, the confusion and miscommunication that spread throughout the rescue effort was immediate and nearly total. First, an assistance offer from the United Nations’ urban search and rescue arm, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), was rejected by Bangladesh after the same organization had concluded, in the months leading up to the disaster, that Bangladesh was not equipped to handle an effective rescue operation on its own.


Trying to save face after the ruling, the local government decided to do exactly what said ruling said it couldn’t, and handle the rescue effort alone. However, many of the volunteers lacked adequate equipment or safety gear, endangering themselves and prolonging the operation unnecessarily. Inside the building, survivors were drinking their own urine to survive the heat as they awaited rescue. But for too many, rescue never came: the death toll of 1,134 makes the Rana Plaza collapse (as it’s also known) the deadliest garment factory disaster, and deadliest structural failure, in human history. More than half of the victims were women, and many children were also on-site in various nursery rooms throughout the building.

4. Mecca Crane Collapse (2015)

There’s obviously no good time for an absolute structural failure, but the worst time is when there’s plenty of unsuspecting people around who’d be jeopardized by a collapse. That was the case when, on September 11 (seriously), 2015, a crawler crane tipped over into the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque in Mecca), right before the massive Hajj pilgrimage. Of the 111 who were killed, 25 were from Bangladesh and 23 were Egyptian. Ten other nationalities were represented among the dead. Of the 394 injured, 51 were from Pakistan and 42 were of Indonesian origin.

What makes this international incident even sadder is the fact that it was the result of an effort to actually save lives from similar disasters. Over the years, thousands of people have been killed due to a number of major incidents during the Hajj. The crane at fault here was there as part of a large construction project designed to update Mecca’s architectural infrastructure to accommodate more people and avoid human crushes (essentially suffocating, stampede-like conditions where a massive crowd is packed into a small place with no easy way out). Despite the incident, the 2015 Hajj continued as scheduled.

3. Kolkata Bridge Collapse (2016)

Perhaps the first sign that something was wrong with Kolkata, India’s Vivekananda Road flyover (meaning bridge) was the fact that the 2.2 kilometer (1.4 mile) bridge wasn’t actually completed, despite having been scheduled (in 2008) to be finished and ready for traffic as far back as 2010. Ballooning costs caused it to wildly overshoot its completion deadline over and over again. Eventually, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, had enough and gave initial construction bid-winners IVRCL a final 18 month deadline and the equivalent of $23 million to simply get it done.

However, by the February 2016 deadline, only 60% of the work was finished and the money-hemorrhaging IVRCL was in overwhelming debt. Within weeks, an assortment of banks took over the company and banned it from doing business in several Indian states. On March 30, 2016, concrete was laid on what parts of the bridge there were. The next day, a section of the steel bridge collapsed, killing 50 pedestrians beneath it and wounding at least the same number again. More than 90 survivors were pulled from the rubble, but nearly 100 remain unaccounted for. The day after, five IVRCL executives were charged with murder under India’s penal code, and arrested. 

2. Chinese Apartment Building Collapse (2016)

As is the case with lots of structurally unsound, buildings with outdated code in the developing world, overcrowding was a major reason that 22 people died when four cramped, six-story apartment buildings in Wenzhou, China collapsed into rubble in October 2016. It gets more tragic: the Chinese government, not exactly known for being benevolent and responsible, did actually know about the dangers posed by these flimsy, ramshackle buildings, built by villagers in the 1970s and currently occupied by masses of low-income migrant factory workers who’d flocked to the city in search of employment.

In fact, the government wanted to demolish and replace several of these structures, but the residents inside, fearing the loss of their affordable rent more than the dangers posed by the buildings, resisted by refusing to move for nearly two years at the time the disaster struck. The government tried to buy them out, but the demands of residents were high and a proper deal was never reached. Famously, while volunteers and state workers dug through the rubble for survivors, a little 3 year old girl was found alive, shielded from the building’s collapse by the bodies of her parents. 

1. Florida International University Pedestrian Bridge Collapse (2018)

On March 15, 2018, a brand new, 178-foot bridge connecting Florida International University (FIU) near Miami to University Park (just a stone’s throw over to its west), abruptly failed while undergoing routine post-tension rod adjustment. Although nobody was on the bridge at the time due to maintenance, general traffic was open on the road beneath it and six people were killed (an additional eight were injured). So, as is the case with almost everything on this list, a post-disaster inspection led by the Federal Highway Administration discovered fundamental design flaws in the bridge itself. Namely, the strength of the bridge in the region of failure was overestimated and the load it was expected to carry was underestimated. 

Lots of names were thrown around (FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc. and consulting engineer Louis Berger being chief among them) and plenty of fingers were pointed, but ultimately it was determined that nearly everyone involved in the design, construction and inspection of the walkway had failed to adequately carry out their respective tasks. On March 19, many of these figures and companies were sued for reckless negligence, on March 1, 2019, roughly a year after the incident, Munilla Construction Management (which had overseen the construction) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and agreed to pay a combined $42 million to the victims and their families.


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